Monday, February 25, 2013

"The Man Who Got Away"

The Demise of George “Bugs” Moran

Most famously known as the man who narrowly escaped death at the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, George Moran had ended up with the North Side mob almost by accident since he managed to outlive all of his friends. But Moran’s power was broken by the massacre and he eventually drifted away from Chicago and died in prison on February 25, 1957. It was a forgettable moment for the man who once challenged the reign of Al Capone.

George “Bugs” Moran
George "Bugs" Moran was born Alelard Cunin in Minnesota in 1891, the son of a French stone mason named Jules Cunin, and his wife, Marie. His father was later recalled as a mean-tempered man and the two never got along, although he and his mother stayed on good terms throughout this life. He ran away in 1910 and adopted the name of George Moran. He became involved with a gang of young toughs who began specializing in stealing horses. In 1912, Moran was arrested for the first time. He spent several stints in jail after that for other crimes, including larceny and burglary.
Moran made friends in Joliet Correctional Center and began hanging around the North Side after his release. One day, Moran was listening to a speech given by an outdoor orator and became annoyed when a man in the crowd started heckling him. Moran confronted the heckler and a fight broke out. As a result, Moran’s chest and neck were badly slashed with a knife and he spent the rest of his life wearing high-neck collars to hide the scars. His nickname of “Bugs” was probably created by newspaper writers (as most gangsters’ more colorful handles were) but it was noted that Moran had a fiery temper, which led to the moniker.

Following the knife attack, and after recuperating for several weeks in the hospital, Moran began hanging around McGovern’s, a cabaret at 666 North Clark Street, where Dean O’Banion worked as a singing waiter. Many criminals who were just starting out hung around the place and Moran became friends with many of them, including O’Banion. The two began working together, robbing warehouses, with other members of what would become the North Side gang. After one fouled-up job, Moran was captured. He kept his silence and served two years in Joliet without implicating O'Banion in the crime. After he was released, he went back to work with his friend. He was soon captured again and, once more, he kept silent about who he worked with. He stayed in jail this time until 1923.

When Moran got out the last time, he joined back up with O’Banion’s now formidable North Side gang. They had become a powerful organization, supplying liquor to Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast. Moran became a valuable asset, hijacking liquor trucks at will. He became known as O'Banion's right hand man, always impeccably dressed, right down to the two guns that he always wore.

Moran fell in love with a showgirl who had recently arrived in America from Turkey. Her name was Lucille Bilezikdijan and she had a child from a previous relationship, which she feared would turn Moran away from her. Instead, he raised the boy as his own and not long after, he fathered his own child with Lucille. Like so many other gangster wives, Lucille averred that her husband was, “one of the best men she had ever known.”

After O’Banion was murdered, Moran served as one of his pallbearers – and then as one of his avengers. He took part – along with Hymie Weiss and Vincent Drucci – in several assassination attempts on Capone and in January 1925, was the first man to fire a bullet into John Torrio outside his South Side apartment building (see earlier blog post).

Moran was identified in the Torrio hit by the 17-year-old son of the apartment building’s janitor, Peter Veesaert, who had been standing in the doorway of the building at the time of the attack. He was shown some photographs that were taken by the police during Dean O’Banion’s funeral and he pointed out George Moran as the first man who shot Torrio. Bravely, he insisted that his identification was correct when he was brought face-to-face with Moran after he was arrested. “You’re the man,” Peter said. The police wanted to hold Moran until they could establish some evidence in support of the boy’s identification but Judge William Lindsay released him under $5,000 bail. He was never indicted for the crime.

Moran continued to take part in the attempts to kill Capone – and continued burying his friends who were slain in the Chicago violence. In time, by blood and attrition, he became the leader of the North Side gang and was just as relentless against Capone’s business efforts as O’Banion, Weiss and Drucci had been. On the highway between Detroit and Chicago, they hijacked trucks of liquor that had been shipped to Capone by the Purple Gang. They bombed saloons that exclusively sold his beer. They had assisted Joe Aiello when he had reclaimed the liquor stills of Little Italy. The North Side gang had attempted twice to kill Capone’s favorite gunman, Jack McGurn. The second time, the Gusenberg brothers had caught up with him in a telephone booth at the Hotel McCormick and emptied a Tommy gun through the glass. Major surgery and a long recovery in the hospital saved his life. The gang even started their own dog racing tracks. Moran opened a track in Southern Illinois while his business manager, Adam Heyer, opened the Fairview Kennel Club in Cicero, not far from Capone’s Hawthorne Kennel Club – which was set on fire during a terrorist attack. In late 1928, Moran became entrenched with the Master Cleaners’ and Dyers’ Association, a blatant challenge to Capone. He managed to get control of an independent plant, the Central Cleaning Company, and installed two of his men, Willie Marks and Al Weinshank, as vice-presidents. In short, Moran took every opportunity to provoke Capone, both on the streets and in the newspapers, where he often publicly blamed Capone for local violence.

Just days before the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Moran was contacted and asked to be at the garage on North Clark Street where the massacre occurred. He arrived a few minutes late and, seeing what he believed were police cars outside, was at a nearby coffee shop when his friends were slaughtered. He narrowly missed being killed and to this day, many historians believe that Al Weinshank was mistaken for Moran by the lookouts for the assassins. The massacre was a simple, cold-bloodedly efficient assassination that was meant to kill George Moran and break the back of the North Side gang, opening up its territories and operations to Al Capone. But they missed Moran and from that point on, he was known as “the man who got away.”

Although the St. Valentine’s Massacre greatly diminished the power of George Moran and the North Side gang, it did not completely destroy it. Moran managed to keep control of most of his territory and what remained of his gang through the end of Prohibition and into the early 1930s. But with the repeal of Prohibition, the North Side gang declined along with almost everyone else and Moran decided to leave Chicago.

Many crime writers believe that Moran's biggest liability as a gang boss was Moran himself ---he was simply not very smart in the ways of long-term survival as a mob leader. While Capone was a master at planning his operations several steps in advance (thanks to his mentoring by Torrio), Moran operated almost like an ordinary street fighter, doing everything by cause and effect. So, having been squeezed out of Chicago at the end of Prohibition, he reverted back to his early life of pulling common crimes like safecracking and robbery. Moran went from being one of the wealthiest gangsters in Chicago to a penniless crook in less than two decades.

Moran toward the end of his life
In July 1946, Moran was arrested in Ohio for robbing a bank messenger of $10,000, a paltry sum compared to his ill-gotten gains during the Prohibition days. He was convicted and sentenced to ten years in the Ohio Penitentiary. Shortly after his release, Moran was again arrested for an earlier bank raid, receiving another ten-year sentence, this time in Leavenworth. Only a matter of days after arriving there, most of which were spent in the prison hospital, Moran died of lung cancer on February 25, 1957. He was buried in the prison cemetery.

While at the height of his career in Chicago, Moran was quoted as saying, “I hope when my time comes that I die decently in bed. I don’t want to be murdered and left for dead beside the garbage cans in some Chicago alley.” And he didn’t – he died lonely and mostly forgotten in a prison hospital bed. And one has to wonder, if he’d had the chance, would he have changed his mind about his choice?

The story of George Moran, the North Side Mob, Capone and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is chronicled in my book BLOOD, GUNS & VALENTINES, which is available in print from the website and as a Kindle edition.

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